Archive for the ‘genetics’ Category

“Why the future doesn’t need us”

September 13, 2010

In the Wired essay of this name, a few years old now but still startling to think about, Bill Joy was definitely not happy to contemplate the world without us. [Wiki bio]

His point was that we need to be charting a very different future than the one our present technological trend-lines– particularly in genetics, robotics, and nanotechnology– seem to be converging on. It’s not clear that he was playing Chicken Little in that piece, or that the sky will not soon fall. He was sounding an alarm. Have any of us heard it?

Well, Bill McKibben did. See his Enough: staying human in an engineered age. Like Joy, he too is now intensely preoccupied with green solutions to our woes. []

Some people call him Chicken Little, too, ever since End of Nature; and he keeps looking more and more like a prophet just barely ahead of his time. Let us hope Bill Joy was just wrong. Better yet, let’s act to make him wrong. That’s what he was really hoping we’d do, after reading Wired.

You could call him a Star Trek geek, too. He still seems to share the same Roddenberry vision of the 24th century he and I and many others were infected with on Thursday nights back in the late ’60s. Good for us, I say. But: where are our jet-packs?! Well, maybe they’ll be along soon enough, if he’s right about carbon nano-tubes and Moore’s Law, along with our replicators and transporters. We’ve already got our phasers and tri-corders. Live long and prosper!

(Wired continues its penchant for lapel-grabbing feature stories. Lately they’ve pronounced the death of the Web. Sounds, like reports of Mr. Twain’s death more than a century ago, a bit exaggerated.  And premature.)

NOTE TO CLASS: in addition to Bill Joy, the syllabus promised some discussion today of transhumanists and gerontologists, including Aubrey de Grey. Stay tuned, we’ll get to all that– and the idea of bio-enhancement— a little later. Meanwhile, take a look for Wednesday at some of the founding documents of the Long Now Foundation from Hillis &  Eno, et al, and then let’s get started with Brand’s Clock of the Long Now.


June 10, 2010

This is why we need a long clock.

The short one we’ve already got keeps ticking closer to midnight, closer to doomsday. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists calmly declares: it is 6 minutes to midnight.

The Doomsday Clock conveys how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction–the figurative midnight–and monitors the means humankind could use to obliterate itself. First and foremost, these include nuclear weapons, but they also encompass climate-changing technologies and new developments in the life sciences that could inflict irrevocable harm…

Such potential dangers are forcing scientists, institutions, and industry to develop self-governingmechanisms to prevent misuse. But developing a system to ensure the safe use of bioengineering, without impeding beneficial research and development, could pose the greatest international science and security challenge during the next 50 years.

The next 6 minutes.

“This is our life happening,” Michael Chabon has written, “and it’s happening right now.”

“Against Happiness”

October 13, 2009

grumpyEric Wilson is one of the comfortably-gloomy Gusses, the grumpy young men, leading a backlash against Positive Psychology. Here he is, participating in a round-table discussion of our right to remain grumpy… reviewed by Garrison Keillor… & on NPR.

The last page of his book is illuminating: he acknowledges friends and family and thanks them for tolerating his lifelong Eeyore-hood. eeyore1His parents have been “especially patient with my chronic gloom,” his wife has shown “remarkable endurance of my melancholy moods,” but his five-year old daughter has “consistently brightened my heart and made life worth living.”

Clearly, depressives take a toll on those they love (and probably feel bad about it), and they cast their impressionable young in a shadow of gloom we must all hope they’ll retain the strength and resources and genetic potential to avoid falling into themselves, when the spontaneous brightness of childhood dims.

A question: can pessimistic parents raise optimistic children? Should they try? You know the answer you’ll get to that, from Positive Psychologists like Martin Seligman and others. (Seligman at TED)

Apparently maternal depression is a harder handicap for children to rebound from than despondent Daddys, so Eric needn’t feel as guilty as he should with the other chromosome set. But if (as Prof. Levy said… as Marty Seligman said in fact, in The Optimistic Child) we really want future generations to understand more of the human condition, and want our children to be happy, we’d better start modeling that for them occasionally. If you’re inveterately (but not uncontrollably) morose, don’t you still owe it to your kids to rouse yourself to a semblance of enjoyment at least once in  a while? Nurture’s not all, but neither is it negligible.

My mother was diagnosed with what was then called manic-depressive illness early in my childhood. I didn’t understand why she had to live apart from us for long stretches of time, in a cold and cavernous institution that was (but yet wasn’t, somehow) like the hospitals I’d known as patient and visitor, when Mom was still relatively healthy and working as an R.N. Nor did I understand what “electro-shock therapy” meant. Then, when she came home, I didn’t understand why she wore a blank, emotionless expression and couldn’t remember or muster interest in, or enthusiasm for, much of anything at all.

My father, I learned eventually, despite his own challenging childhood, was blessed with a spontaneously-sunny, optimistic disposition that had been clouded through much of my youth by the sad shadow of my mother’s affliction. I didn’t see much of it then. I wasn’t a happy kid, or college student. It would be years until I discovered James’s discovery of Renouvier, and began to think that my own pursuit of happiness was something it might be worth looking into. As my bumper sticker proclaims, falsely in many situations no doubt, but gratefully in my own: It’s Never Too Late to Have a Happy Childhood.

In his own teenage wasteland, Wilson says, “I longed most to spend my days, especially in summer, lolling about in my dark bedroom. With my blinds dimming the morning sun to a gloomy beam, I would lie on my floor and stare at the stains on my ceiling [with] a tremulous air of failure… embracing blackness while the world sprang into light. I loved my cold seclusion… this winter of my mind’s own making.”

And then his Dad would barge in, raise the blinds, and encourage him to go play ball or swim or call a girl. What a spoilsport.

Most of us grow out of that particular form of adolescent self-indulgence, if we’ve been cursed by it. The mature Wilson is right: “those committed to happiness at any cost and those bent on sadness no matter what are not very different…  happy types, bent only on bliss, always take flight [from ambiguity]. But those who have committed their lives to dejection are no different. These sad types– those black-clad poseurs who identify only with the darkness– choose sullenness as one picks a religion or a haircut… They too live only partial existences.”

Good of him to admit that, and to encourage his little daughter to live in the light. If she ever finds herself thrown by life into the gloom of a real shadow, this attitude is probably not going to work for her. Hope she reads Rapt.

Theistic evolution at the NIH

July 30, 2009

The nomination to head the National Institutes of Health of Francis Collins, former genome mapping project administrator and probably the most prominent working scientist who also calls himself a Christian, disturbs  Sam Harris and P.Z. Myers, among many.

Collins is a theistic evolutionist and  a devotee of C.S. Lewis. He thinks we can’t be good without God.

I’m pretty sure he’s wrong about that. Some of my best good friends are Godless. Some of them aren’t even “spiritual.” As Julia Sweeney discovered, putting on the No God glasses leaves our vulnerable planet still hanging out there in space as pretty as ever, and leaves most of us as free of any impulse to run out and commit wanton sin as we ever were.

But I would just remind my friends that a few short months ago, the presidential appointment of an evolutionist of any stripe, theistic or otherwise, would have been astonishing. This president really does see himself as a “uniter, not a divider.” We’re going to have to get more comfortable with letting Obama be Obama.

Our family tree

June 7, 2009

The idea that we’re all related, all “mixed” and richly intermingled, is no platitude. Genetic science solidly supports it. Shake our family tree, as Spencer Wells has been doing, and all kinds of hidden connections fall out. The big one is that we’re all out of Africa.

Wells, author of The Journey of Man and producer of the documentary of that name, and director of the Genographic Project, spoke at TED.

All humans share some common bits of DNA, passed down to us from our African ancestors. Geneticist Spencer Wells talks about how his Genographic Project will use this shared DNA to figure out how we are — in all our diversity — truly connected.

Spencer Wells studies human diversity — the process by which humanity, which springs from a single common source, has become so astonishingly diverse and widespread.

The human family tree records an ever-branching journey that leaves a Y-chromosome genetic trail. Follow the Y. As we kept marveling at the zoo yesterday, we’re all related.

dna tree